Geneva, 18 May (Kanaga Raja) – COVID-19 must be a wake-up call and it is time for an end to the hubris, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said at the opening of the 73rd World Health Assembly (WHA) on Monday.
“Our deep feelings of powerlessness must lead to greater humility. Deadly global threats require a new unity and solidarity,” Mr Guterres told delegates at the start of the two-day virtual meeting.
Referring to the COVID-19 pandemic as “the greatest challenge of our age”, the UN chief said that the pandemic demonstrated “our global fragility. Despite the enormous scientific and technological advances of recent decades, a microscopic virus has brought us to our knees.”
“We do not yet know how to eradicate, treat or vaccinate against COVID-19. We have no idea when we will be able to do these things”.
But the fragility exposed by the virus is not limited to our health systems, said the Secretary-General.
“It affects all areas of our world and our institutions. The fragility of coordinated global efforts is highlighted by our failed response to the climate crisis.
“The fragility of our nuclear disarmament regime is shown by the ever-increasing risk of proliferation. The fragility of our web protocols is laid bare by constant breaches in cyber security, as cyber warfare is also already happening – in a lawless international environment.”
Mr Guterres pointed out that, “We have seen some solidarity, but very little unity, in our response to COVID- 19.”
“Different countries have followed different, sometimes contradictory, strategies and we are all paying a heavy price.”
Many countries have ignored the recommendations of the World Health Organization, he said.
As a result, the virus has spread across the world and is now moving into the global South, where its impact may be even more devastating, and we are risking further spikes and waves.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the United Nations, and he personally, had advocated a three-point response, he said.
First, a large-scale, coordinated and comprehensive health response, guided by the WHO, with an emphasis on solidarity towards developing countries.
“We must pool our efforts to help countries at greatest risk and strengthen and expand their health systems. This must be complemented by our humanitarian response,” he said.
“We must also invest in expanded mental health services to support the enormous increase in psychological suffering caused by this disease, from grief and depression to anxiety and fear for the future.
“Second, we have called for policies to address the devastating social and economic dimensions of the crisis.
“Let me be clear: there is no choice between addressing the health impact and the economic and social fallout from this pandemic. This is a false dichotomy. Unless we control the spread of the virus, the economy will never recover,” said the UN Secretary-General.
“So together with the health response, we need direct support that will keep households afloat and businesses solvent. There must be a focus on the most affected: women, older people, children, low-wage earners and other vulnerable groups.”
In this regard, Mr Guterres recalled that he had urged the G20 to consider the urgent launch of a large-scale, coordinated and comprehensive stimulus package amounting to a double-digit percentage of global GDP.
“While developed countries can do this by themselves, we must massively increase the resources available to the developing world.”
He said that he had also called for greater support through the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank Group and other International Financial Institutions.
“Third, we have made clear that the recovery from the COVID-19 crisis must lead to more equal, inclusive and sustainable economies and societies that are stronger and more resilient,” he said, adding that the pandemic is a tragedy.
“Both our response and our recovery must put human rights considerations at the centre. But it is also an opportunity to address the climate crisis and inequality of all kinds, including the yawning gaps in our social protection systems. It is an opportunity to rebuild differently and better.
“Instead of going back to systems that were unsustainable, we need to make a leap into a future of clean energy, inclusivity and equality, and stronger social safety nets, including universal health coverage. It will require a massive multilateral effort,” the Secretary-General emphasized.
In this context, he expressed hope that the search for a vaccine can be a starting point.
He said that the ACT Accelerator is a landmark global collaboration to speed up the development, production and equitable access to new COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.
“It is essential that these are universally available and affordable for everyone, everywhere. They are a quintessential global public good. We can do it. But will we?”
In closing, the Secretary-General paid tribute to the front-line health workers who he said are the heroes of this pandemic.
“From nurses and midwives to technicians and administrators, millions of healthcare workers are putting themselves in harm’s way every day to protect us. We owe them our deepest appreciation and solidarity,” he said.
“The entire United Nations family stands with thousands of our colleagues at the World Health Organization who are working around the world to support Member States in saving lives and protecting the vulnerable, with guidance, training and essential testing, treatment and protective equipment. We thank you for your service.”
The Secretary-General said that the WHO is irreplaceable.
“It needs enhanced resources, particularly to provide support to developing countries, which must be our greatest concern. We are as strong as the weakest health systems.”
Protecting the developing world is not a matter of charity or generosity but a question of enlightened self- interest. The global North cannot defeat COVID-19 unless the global South defeats it at the same time.
Mr Guterres recalled what he had said last month, namely, “Once we have finally turned the page on this epidemic, there must be a time to look back fully to understand how such a disease emerged and spread its devastation so quickly across the globe, and how all those involved reacted to the crisis. The lessons learned will be essential to effectively address similar challenges, as they may arise in the future.
“But now is not that time. Now is the time for unity, for the international community to work together in solidarity to stop this virus and its shattering consequences,” he had said then.
“We cannot contemplate a future of fear and insecurity. Either we get through this pandemic together, or we fail. Either we stand together, or we fall apart,” Mr Guterres told the WHA delegates on Monday.